An extraordinary forum of world leaders assembled at the residence of President Reuven Rivlin. The beautiful home on President's Street in the Talbieh neighborhood in Jerusalem had never before seen such a densely packed meeting of global leadership. Those attending included French President Emmanuel Macron; German President Frank Walter Steinmeier; US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi; representatives of the royal houses of Britain, Spain, the Netherlands, and Belgium; and an impressive number of other heads of state.
The purpose of this "Holocaust Forum" is to discuss preservation of historical memory, and defense against anti-Semitism. It is not a political summit that will make operative decisions. Nevertheless, the significance of the conference goes beyond a historical discussion of the Holocaust. The appearance of leaders at the highest level in Jerusalem, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, US Vice President Michael Pence, and Charles, Prince of Wales highlights Israel's diplomatic standing.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was not among the sponsors of the event, and did not issue the invitations. Nevertheless, in surveying the event, it should be noted that for eleven years Netanyahu has been exerting pressure, promoting Israel's standing, and developing extensive networks of connections throughout the world, and his diligent activity has paid dividends. Such a global attendance cannot be taken for granted, especially at a time when Israel is battling on its northern border (against Hezbollah), its northeastern border (against Iranian militias operating from Syrian territory), and its southern border (against Hamas).
Especially notable is Putin's attendance, 18 months after a Syrian anti-aircraft missile trying to hit Israeli aircraft missed its target and hit a Russian Ilyushin plane with 15 crew members aboard. All of them were killed. This deadly event could have destroyed the connections and military coordination between Israel and Russia, but Netanyahu overcame it. Since September 2015, Putin and Netanyahu have met 14 times, and have spoken by telephone seven times in recent months. The long-awaited release of Naama Issachar, jailed in Russia for possessing cannabis, shows the depth of the connection between Russia and Israel, and between Putin and Netanyahu. It is clear to anyone who has been following the affair that personal connections between leaders can solve such a diplomatic imbroglio. Some will say that Russia's behavior deviated from its usual relations with Israel from the beginning by arresting Issachar and holding her there. The problem was solved, however, by the man in Jerusalem, and it was no easy task, either.
Close attention to detail
The big concern in Israel is about the price to be paid for Issachar's release, which was not clear as these lines were written. Will Israel pay Russia in the form of restrictions on the Israeli air force in its operations in Lebanon and Syria? What unacknowledged understandings were reached by Netanyahu with Putin about Russian properties in Jerusalem, which could even affect the route of the Jerusalem light rail? These things are mostly being concealed from the Israeli public. Only later, at press conferences in Russia, is Putin likely to release the information, with brutal directness.
In order to accommodate an event of this size, a large white marquee was erected in the plaza at the entrance to the President's Residence, with heaters at the sides of the tent. Dozens of national flags were carefully unfurled on the wide stage. The rear grassy areas in the structure were converted into enormous catering kitchens, and hundreds of workers, guards, cleaners, and cooks busied themselves preparing for the banquet.
It was the closest thing that Israel has ever seen to a state dinner as practiced in Washington and European capitals. When you enter events of this type in the golden hall in the Champs-Elysees or the White House official dining room, with its ivory walls and its chandeliers, you immediately feel the great splendor. In the President's Residence, the scene is still modest and local, with stained glass windows by artist Reuven Rubin and bronze doors by Shraga Weil, and that is how it should be.
The director general of the President's Residence, Harel Tubi, presidential senior foreign affairs advisor Shuli Davidovich, presidential spokesperson Naomi Toledano, and presidential chief of staff Rivka Ravitz, worked hard in recent months to make sure that the event would go smoothly. This involved small details: who sits next to whom, where people are photographed, who performs in the artistic program, and what refreshments are served. These details are important.
When all of the leaders assembled on Wednesday evening, the temperature outside plummeted to zero degrees (32 degrees Fahrenheit). One of those present from France said that it wasn't that cold in Paris. Our warm country received the world's leaders on one of the coldest days of the year.
It was easy to discern the coldness between Rivlin and Netanyahu. In the wide tent, the president received those entering, was photographed with all of them, and Minister of Foreign Affairs Yisrael Katz and opposition leader MK Benny Gantz, friends who grew up together on the same moshav, Kfar Ahim, came to chat. Katz and Gantz, now political rivals, looked on Wednesday like two people enjoying each other's company. They are both offspring of Holocaust survivors, and have known each other since childhood. Their parents are buried in the Kfar Ahim cemetery, and only the Israeli division into political parties has put them on opposite sides in a dirty political year.
A lesson for Netanyahu in Belgian politics
Correspondents sitting a few meters behind the two men observed a prolonged and friendly conversation that included physical contact. While Gantz and Katz were sitting together, the Danish prime minister arrived and spoke with the two of them, as did others.
When Netanyahu entered the reception tent, he shook hands lightly with Gantz, who was still standing next to Katz, and proceeded inside to the rear part of the area, where he spoke at length with European Council President Charles Michel, who was prime minister of Belgium until May 2019. Perhaps Michel gave Netanyahu advice about prolonged political crises. Belgium holds the dubious record of taking 541 days to form a government some time at the beginning of the preceding decade. In late 2018, when Michel was prime minister, he lost his political majority, brought the elections forward to May 2019, moved to the European Council, and Belgium has had no government since then.
Within an hour of the end of the reception, all the leaders entered the President's Residence for dinner, and Rivlin ran back and forth to personally welcome Macron, who entered a little late. Macron sat at Rivlin's right at the dignitaries' table. Rivlin and Netanyahu were separated by Steinmeier, and behind them in the guests' order sat King Felipe VI of Spain, who was also the main speaker among all of the worlds' representatives. I listened carefully to Rivlin's opening remarks, and to those of the doyen of Holocaust historians Prof. Yehuda Bauer, and to the Spanish king's speech. Netanyahu sat there the whole time, and was not one of the speakers. It was hard for him, because Netanyahu likes to be the main speaker at any forum that he attends. Those who listened carefully detected a different style of speech than they have become accustomed to in the past 11 years of Netanyahu's leadership. The constant connection that Netanyahu makes between the danger from Iran and the destruction of the Jewish people in WWII was absent this time.
Rivlin preferred to focus on the disputes over history between the heads of state, indirectly referring to a dispute between Poland and Russia about the responsibility for the horrors of the Holocaust. In his speech he implored, "Historical research should be left to historians. The role of political leaders is to shape the future… this gathering is an expression of our shared commitment, to pass on the historical facts and lessons of the Shoah, to the next generation."
Moshe Kantor's achievement
Credit for creating the World Holocaust Forum belongs to Moshe Kantor, a Russian businessperson, philanthropist, and president of the European Jewish Congress. Kantor, whose wealth is estimated at $3 billion, controls Acron Group, a large Russian fertilizer company, and is known for having been close to Putin for many years.
The heads of Jewish communities in Western Europe and the US are sometimes disturbed by his attitude; he accuses Western European countries of responsibility for anti-Semitic developments. Since he has been president of the European Jewish Congress, concern about the awakening of anti-Semitism has been aimed mainly at countries that Putin sees as covert enemies.
In cooperation with Yad Vashem, Kantor is also funding the Forum. The big money comes from him through the European Jewish Congress. He pulled the strings in inviting leaders. At the President's Residence, he circulated among all of the leaders, satisfied with his important achievement.
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on January 23, 2020
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